Choice concept sound, but needs implementation fix
Spurred by events across north Louisiana, state education Superintendent John White wisely reduced to scope of an innovative education program for the upcoming year. But failure to understand why that had to become necessary risks cheating children and families in the future.
While legislative and other supporters of the special interests inside and outside of Louisiana’s underperforming educational establishment that in protecting their own interests serve to retard its improvement will try to use what has happened during this shakedown period to gut the reform’s intent, understand that these are implementation, not conceptual, problems of the program, in part caused by these very opponents. In order to enable a brighter future for Louisiana’s children, these initial difficulties should not discourage policy-makers from making the necessary adjustments and expanding the program’s reach.
Last year, the Legislature as part of its bold reforms of public education introduced the Course Choice program that would allow students to take courses online instead of being limited to offerings in their schools. The state approved 42 providers, including from universities and other school districts, which would be allowed to solicit students; 23 received business. Once families had given permission to enroll their children in one or more of these, rules from the state Department of Education would allow their local districts to approve of the arrangements; if they did not act within a four-day window to do so, the registration would proceed.
However, controversy arose when in parishes across north Louisiana a number of families alleged their children had been signed up for courses without their consent, that signups were occurring from students not even in a district, and that districts were refusing to approve almost all to, in Bossier Parish, none of the enrollees. As a result of the confused state of affairs, White announced for the next school year the program would take on more a pilot status, with provider enrollment caps, than full-blown rollout, and the enrollment process would be rebooted. Also pertinent to this decision was the recent court ruling that the Minimum Foundation Program could not be used to fund this, so the cutback also responds to the short time frame to find dollars in a tight budgetary environment.
As White pointed out, having the backstop of local counselors reviewing requests for appropriateness and further review in the case of seemingly unknown students registering – it turns out errors made in the initial data entry process caused that – showed the system was working to prevent problems. It’s just that there were so many questioned entries that it proved ineffective and, in fact, pointed out that the biggest potential bureaucratic flaw came with the decision to give unfettered review power to the local districts.
Unfortunately, many in the education establishment are oriented to put more emphasis on protecting it and those who benefit from its operation as currently constituted than on best educating children. A particularly despicable example of this attitude comes from Claiborne Parish School Superintendent Janice Williams, who calls the reforms designed to remove bureaucracy and introduce choice and competition to the government-monopoly school model as an attempt to “collapse public education” and said “Course Choice is going to destroy public education as we once knew it” (of Claiborne’s six schools, for the most recent year reported two are ranked C, two are ranked D, and two are ranked F, and its LEAP and iLEAP grade level or above percentage of students has dropped from 2009 from 53 to 48 percent, so she seems to have direct experience heading a district where public education has been collapsed and destroyed by its own actions).
White maintains that this attitude of competition through Course Choice viewed as something designed to take resources away from a district (dollars from the state going to the district were to be subtracted for every class registered through Course Choice with some transferred to the provider) that must be resisted caused entirely statistically improbable rejection rates, such as Bossier’s and Caddo Parish’s 95 percent rate – actions which may be illegal if the systems are discouraging students. (Interestingly, by contrast Bossier contracted out in the program to enroll one online student even as it denied its students the same chance to go outside the district.) Had it not been that many school officials did not pay sufficient attention and did not address an enrollment request within the 96-hour window, which automatically validates it, perhaps hardly any would have been signed up, allowing local officials to invalidate state law for suspicious reasons.
Also problematic is the signup procedure. At least one company, which ended up registering almost 90 percent of the 870 originally submitted, used the inducement of a tablet device that would be used for course delivery but could be kept regardless of whether the student actually passed all hurdles for course completion. This appears to have led to registrations for their own sakes, probably many inappropriately, that were vetoed. Subsequently, some families on the receiving end of this bounty claimed their children never assented nor had they given the required parental permission for this registration.
Of course, these assertions must be viewed very suspiciously. It seems incredibly unlikely that the company’s registrars could make up out of thin air the data that they submitted that was tied specifically to existing students. Far more likely is either the children in question did it without the parents’ knowledge or the parents, apparently a large number of whom receive free government benefits already, simply were inattentive of the implications or too comfortably used to receiving no-strings resources from government-connected programs to question the process at the time it happened.
Still, these events demonstrate the need for rule-making to address these areas. The existing state oversight process should strengthen the burden of proof when a district vetoes an enrollment over a family’s objections to ensure local officials aren’t abusing their discretion. And, providers should be forbidden to supply inducements, whether related to course delivery, until the classes actually begin, and if related to delivery to make families liable for them.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 11:00